Navratilova leads the tributes to British pioneer Angela Buxton
Tennis has lost one of its most underappreciated champions in Angela Buxton, the British player who has passed away at the age of 85.
Buxton won the 1956 women’s doubles event at Wimbledon and also reached the singles final in the same year. Even so, she never received an honorary membership from the All England Club – an omission that Buxton herself attributed to anti-Semitism.
British tennis in the 1950s was a largely monocultural business until Buxton came along. Her Jewish father, Harry, was a street hustler in Leeds until he mastered the art of profitable gambling at casinos.
The young Angela learnt much of her tennis craft in South Africa, where the family sheltered during the Blitz. But despite being one of England’s leading players in the 1950s, she was never accepted by the establishment.
This may explain Buxton’s decision to team up with Althea Gibson in 1956, the summer they won Wimbledon’s doubles event together. Five years earlier, Gibson – a tall and powerful athlete from South Carolina – had become the first black woman to play at Wimbledon. As Buxton told The Telegraph last year: “Althea was still fighting the black barrier. I remember her sitting on the sideline when I was playing the 1956 Wightman Cup against America at Wimbledon. I was thinking, ‘What the hell is she sitting there for?’ One of the best players in the world and she wasn’t chosen.”
Buxton had also won the French Open doubles with Gibson a few months earlier. This was the best summer of her career, but in the final of the singles competition American Shirley Fry proved too strong in a routine 6-3, 6-1 win to deny Buxton a Wimbledon double.
The explanation for why Buxton never received an All England Club membership is unclear. Some say that she moved quickly into professional coaching after a hand injury ended her career in 1957 – and that professionals were not welcome at the All England club. Buxton claimed in an interview last year that the last time she asked the club about it was in 1988.
“They said I had refused it and my membership had gone to the back of the queue. I never refused it and there are so many players who didn’t do anything like me and got membership.”
It also seems that, in her playing days, Buxton was refused membership by the Cumberland Club – the West Hampstead institution which recently produced British No 3 Harriet Dart. And that was only part of the story. “The Southport club wouldn’t let me practise there,” she said. “Even though I was No 1 in England, so a member took me there as his guest. I took great delight in winning their tournament.”
In a statement, the All England Club said: “The AELTC was deeply saddened to hear of Angela’s passing and offers condolences to her family and friends. Her contribution to The Championships, in particular her partnership with Althea Gibson, will be long remembered. While the decision-making process for membership of the All England Club is a private matter, we strongly refute any suggestion that race or religion plays a factor.”
Martina Navratilova, the ninetime Wimbledon singles champion, tweeted: “RIP Angela Buxton, a champion on the court and a champion of human rights off the court.”
Great team: Angela Buxton (right), who has died aged 85, with her Wimbledon doubles partner Althea Gibson after winning the trophy in 1956